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When worlds collide
By Mark Wegierski
Robert J. Sawyer is among the most successful Canadian and science fiction authors in the world today. Hominids has won the Hugo Award as best North American science fiction novel, chosen by about five thousand paying attendees at the so-called Worldcon, held in late August 2003, in Toronto (called Torcon 3, since it was the third such convention held in Toronto). Rob's win will invariably raise the profile of Canadian science fiction in the world, an endeavour to which Mr. Sawyer has devoted enormous energy, beginning in those days more than twenty years ago when he was just a smart science fiction fan, rather than a professional science fiction writer.
Rob Sawyer has published a dozen best-selling novels, including The Terminal Experiment which won the Nebula, the primary professional science fiction award -- one of over twenty-five literary awards won by him. Mr. Sawyer maintains a massive website at www.sfwriter.com. Most of Mr. Sawyer's novels are set in the near-future, and are based on copious amounts of research into various scientific areas, such as genetics and cosmology. Hominids is the first volume of The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy. The following two volumes, Humans, and Hybrids, have appeared in 2003. However, Hominids reaches a satisfying conclusion on its own; it certainly doesn't leave the reader hanging in mid-air.
The basic premise of Hominids is the cross-over to the current-day world of a single Neanderthal scientist. He comes from a parallel dimension where Neanderthals became dominant, and what in our world are standard humans, died out. The place where the Neanderthal crosses over is The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada. While Mr. Sawyer uses various real places in Canada for his settings, the characters he writes about are his own.
A science fiction book of this type requires various types of research. Presumably, Mr. Sawyer has visited the various places (Sudbury, York University) he writes about. Secondly, he has immersed himself in the paleoanthropological literature about the Neanderthals. The arrival of the Neanderthal scientist has occurred as a result of an accident in a physics experiment in the other dimension, which causes great consternation and turmoil to those who where close to him. With obvious skill and relish, Mr. Sawyer constructs an entire Neanderthal society, which has, over tens of thousands of years, advanced technologically, but with vast differences from our own human societies. The narrative of what happens on our current-day Earth is intervowen with narrative occurring on the Neanderthal Earth. Mr. Sawyer's world-building of the Neanderthal society includes snippets of the Neanderthal language, alternative paths of technological development, and extensive comment on social and sexual mores and arrangements.
Given the fragmentary archeological evidence available, Mr. Sawyer has done a formidable, if idiosyncratic, job of world-construction. Recalling from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Nativity-like scene among the early humanoids (before the Monolith's arrival) -- the reviewer does not see it as likely that Neanderthal society would so spectacularily diverge from the father-mother-children model of existence. That Mr. Sawyer posits that nearly all Neanderthals would be bisexual within a rather bizarre socio-sexual set-up seems too much like an attempt to bring some current-day outlooks into one's anthropological speculations.
Another major element of the book is the reaction and commentary of the Neanderthal scientist towards the current-day world in which he finds himself. This typically embraces some pointed criticisms of our human ways, including our aggressiveness and propensity to religion. Neanderthal society is far less violent and less ecologically destructive than ours, owing to, among other things, round-the-clock electronic monitoring through advanced computer-like devices implanted in the hand. However, this is not considered a totalitarian invasion of privacy in the Neanderthal world, but rather a guarantee of safety and security for everyone. This view of the benefits of the abolition of privacy (which Mr. Sawyer somewhat facetiously argued for in a later Macleans article) is certainly questionable. It is likely that an almost entirely public society would either be an utopia, or, more probably, a nightmare.
Mr. Sawyer also interprets the archeological evidence about Neanderthals as implying that they have little impulse to religion. However, their lack of religion does not necessarily lead to a less moral existence. While they are pretty well indifferent to many things our-Earth humans would consider immoral, they come down very hard on crimes of aggression. The question of whether human beings can be good without God is certainly an important one, but Mr. Sawyer's understanding of traditional religion is rather thin. He seems to ignore an important lesson about the operation of religious belief in society, succintly summarized by Doestoevsky's dictum, "with God, anything is possible [i.e., bad things can happen], but without God, everything is permissible."
After the turmoil of his arrival, the Neanderthal scientist is welcomed to Canada by a few notable characters, including the geneticist Mary Vaughan. Because of the threat of a cross-dimensional plague, he is confined to a doctor's house. While Mr. Sawyer certainly has some memorable and warm characters and character-interactions in his book, it is highly unrealistic that the Neanderthal scientist would be allowed to stay with just three or four people in a private home. This artifice allows Mr. Sawyer to portray a budding relationship between Mary Vaughan, who is painfully recovering from a recent sexual assault, and the Neanderthal scientist, who turns out to be the perfect, sensitive, New Age guy.
There is a distinct element of irony, humour and satire in the way Mr. Sawyer portrays Canada, as well as the hypothetical Neanderthal society, in his book. It could also be argued that the book embraces the sensibility of current-day CanLit, as a sort of feminist (though also somewhat satirizing feminism), post-modern fable about gender and sexual relations, and enthusiastic celebration of various dimensions of Canadian multiculturalism.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.
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